Challenging the Limits of Today’s Reality: Thoughts and Readings for Leaders

At JMW, we are committed to deepen our understanding of the world from the vantage point of leadership and performance. This blog aims to share some of the questions that have emerged in this inquiry, as well as a few articles we have found interesting and provocative. Recently our studies have included an in-depth investigation of the difference between “objective” and “subjective” views of reality. This topic is particularly relevant in our efforts to help clients recognize which “realities” are most limiting the performance of their teams and organizations.

When an individual can see that he or she is “stuck” in a view previously taken for granted as “true” … clients report that this affords them the very essence of an authentic “breakthrough.” Soon thereafter, new possibilities for their leadership and performance come into sharp focus, and exciting things begin to happen.

To this end, how can each of us be even more effective? What will help us influence others – particularly highly intelligent, productive people we encounter as colleagues and clients – to more consistently be open to discover the “realities” they are stuck in? Chris Argyris tackles this topic in his article, “Teaching Smart People How to Learn”.

Let’s not ignore the obvious: as the person being challenged, the route to such insights is counter-intuitive and risky. If you question an assumption I consider “true,” this generally first occurs to me as more than a bit presumptuous, offensive, and even insulting. [“Who are you to question me?”] To get beyond this initial reaction calls for more than a little patience, persistence and trust from both parties involved in such a discussion. When successful, the pivotal moment is often one of honest reflection … an admission that perhaps my view is not the only possible interpretation, rather it’s one that I deeply value and favor.

Seeking a means to similarly challenge yourself – by yourself? This raises the bar. Thinking about one’s own thinking is no easy task. It requires a level of intellectual effort and self-awareness that many of us would prefer to avoid. Believe it or not, a 2014 study revealed that most people find “thinking” so uncomfortable that they would rather administer an electric shock to themselves than have to be isolated with nothing to do except notice their own mental process and spontaneous thoughts.

How then, can we escape the limits of our subjective realities? Where can we look for an objective perspective beyond mere thoughts and opinion? To Science perhaps. In this spirit I have become more interested in (and amused by) how “facts” and “reality” continue to evolve through scientific discovery. What was “true” yesterday may not meet today’s standard for “objective” evidence. For this reason, it’s fascinating to see emerging scientific research that disputes and disproves conclusions accepted as fact by previous studies. For instance, consider the long-accepted theory that a gecko lizard’s ability to walk up vertical surfaces – even upside down – has nothing to do with static electricity. Wrong! A Yale research study recently found that the adhesiveness of gecko feet is aided by electrostatic forces, after all.

How could it be that a misconception dating back to the 1930’s stood unchallenged for so long? Easy enough for us to dismiss the example as having been too trivial to warrant further study. But what about something far more fundamental to our everyday view of reality? In daily life as lived, don’t we still observe that the sun “rises” and “sets” on the horizon? Certainly we know that’s not the case. Yet in spite of the fully accepted scientific facts of planetary movement, this stubborn illusion persists to this day … along with the language in which we happily continue to perpetuate it.

This very example (listed as “Geocentrism”) is included in a recent issue of Popular Science entitled: “Mistakes and Hoaxes: 100 things science got wrong.” Imagine how much more adept we might be in conversations that challenge strongly held beliefs – even with experts their fields – if we could draw on such a complete inventory of instances in which something once accepted as “true” later proved to be false.

The difference we can make by helping clients and colleagues challenge “realities” that limit us is also underscored in the article, “Humans Are Underrated,” by Geoff Colvin. His recent book of the same title features the intriguing tagline: What High Achievers Know that Brilliant Machines Never Will. (A New York Times article exploring the book is aptly entitled, “Humanity as a Competitive Advantage.”)

While the pace of technological advancement continues to displace much of the work that has depended on human skills, he contends that there are specific human capacities that will remain critical to the everyday functioning of a high-performing workplace now and in the future. What’s encouraging is to discover that many of these desirable human capabilities – being better able to listen, empathize and inspire, having the courage and commitment to take on a new level of risk … or to question what others take for granted – are among the very skills JMW clients frequently say have been most profoundly enhanced through their work with us.

This particular connection serves as a potent reminder of why it’s worth the effort to challenge ourselves … to continue to develop and disseminate the kind of practical skills leaders of the future can rely on to make a difference for their organizations. As leaders, we each have the opportunity, to give careful, even painful, consideration to what might stand between us and realizing a new and even greater level of leadership and performance.